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Anthony North

[Fiction] It's like a virus

October 21, 2007 | Comment icon 0 comments


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They say that life is like a road you travel down. For a while it will go nice and straight, but occasionally you get surprising corners that nearly knock you off the road. Then there are the crossroads – you know, times when a choice decides your entire life's journey. But really it is nothing like a road, because on the road you get warning signs of the crossroads. In life, you get no warning at all; and when you hit, boy it can be a matter of life and death. I had one of those moments when I met Jake. I suppose, with hindsight, the warning sign was there. He was a gaunt man with eyes that had such depth it was as if he had seen every horror there was to see. Maybe I should have realized that if I walked his road, I would see it all too. But I was young, adventurous, not the sort to turn down a challenge – in short, I was a fool. I met him in a bar. It was a typical crossroads of a bar. My train was delayed, so I'd wandered out of the station to find a drink. And there was Jake, the only other person in the bar, sat in a corner, surrounded by shadows.

Something about me drew me to him; intrigue, I suppose – a sense that this man was interesting. We talked small talk for a while, and then he hit me with it. 'Do you believe in ghosts?' he said. It was one of those innocuous, trivial questions. We all claim to have seen something in our life, but we never really take it seriously. 'Do you believe in ghosts?' I wish I'd never heard him say that. Because once he'd said it, I'd begun to turn into that damned crossroads.

I won't recount the entire conversation. It becomes tedious; and I don't really want to remember everything. My mind won't take it – it goes into overdrive and I feel as if I'm losing my sense of reality.

That's funny, I suppose – the idea that I know what reality is any more.

Jake had a friend. He was a man he met in a bar – a kind of crossroads of a bar, and this man had eyes that had seen everything, and he told Jake the same story that Jake told me.

The friend had been to a haunted house. He didn't know it was haunted at the time. He knew, as he arrived, that it was old, and it had an aura about it. He knew, as soon as he walked in, that its soul began to cling to him. And he knew that the person who had invited him in was similarly haunted. 'I don't get visitors,' he had said, 'not of the normal kind.'

Jake's friend had seen something that night. He was vague about what he had seen, but Jake knew it had stirred up something inside him. And over the following weeks and months, he saw his friend deteriorate rapidly into a form of madness. 'They followed me home,' he said to Jake one day, and that was as much as he would disclose. And then, as inexplicably as they had met, he disappeared. And being an adventurous sort of person – in other words, a fool – Jake decided to walk the friend's road, which took him to the door of the house.

Maybe he should have turned away from the crossroads at that moment. I suppose we can do that – you know, say this is as far as I go; turn back. But the beauty of our species is that we have an enquiring mind, and once the mind has been activated, we rarely have the courage to say no. We are caught in the trap of life, and we must go on.

Jake went on.

He got no answer as he knocked on the door, and as he looked at the windows he began to doubt the story his friend had told him in the first place. And it was a doubt that had been confirmed when he tried the door and it was unlocked. Pushing it, it creaked, and bit by bit, a dark, damp and dusty environment greeted him. This house hasn't been occupied for years, he realized, so how could his friend have possibly been invited in?

But occupancy is a word we are not always quite so sure about. Even an empty house is rarely empty. Something is in there – creepy crawlies and an army of rodents and …

… yes. And what?

Jake came out of the house with his deep, soulless eyes.

Do I tell you what he told me on subsequent meetings we had – what he saw? I suppose I could, but it would not be the true reality of his situation. No, the reality was much worse than that.
They followed me out of that house.'

'Who are "they"?' I asked, but I got only a simple reply.

'It's like a virus,' he said. Then, on our final meeting: 'I'm going back.'

Jake preyed on my mind for weeks after that. Where was he? What had he done? What did he mean? And as sure as night follows day, I was drawn to that house.

I approached it with a sense of foreboding. I had seen houses like this before, but only in horror films. Huge trees formed a malevolent arch over the drive, and as I spied the house itself, I could sense an aura shrouding it – and an aura that could so easily gain free access to my mind. It was, I knew, my last opportunity to turn away from the crossroads, but equally, I knew, I could never do that. And I passed through the door …

A chill hit me as soon as I walked inside. Scurrying noises came to me from the corner of every room, and the windows were so dust encrusted that only flitting shadows were allowed in. Spider's webs covered everything, and dangled from the high ceilings to touch my skin and jar my soul.

I found the first skeleton in the first room I explored. Its bones were white and it was evident it had been here for decades, if not centuries. And as I moved from room to room, I found more skeletons, but with each find, it was obvious that they were becoming more recent. Eventually, I found one where the flesh had not yet completely disappeared, and in the room after that, I found Jake, his eyes like sockets, and a putrid stench coming from his decaying flesh.

It was then that I felt the presence behind me. It seemed to touch me, beckoning me to turn round; which was, of course, a thing I just did not want to do. But eventually I was drawn to the unknown and I turned.

Jake was stood before me.

So few hours have gone by since I saw Jake's ghost, but it seems like an eternity. His soulless eyes were still there, and it was clear that he was witnessing the same hell in death that he had in the final stages of his life. Whatever happened to him, I didn't know at first, but soon it began to dawn on me that Jake had starved to death. But why? Why had he not left the house?

I asked myself the question many times, but knew the answer all along. If the answer was vague when I saw Jake's ghost, it became a little clearer when it was joined by his friends. And his friend's by his friends, and on and on came the ghosts, wearing the clothes and fashions of the centuries since the house was built. And in every one of them the knowing that if they had left …

But they couldn't.

Jake's friend had said it all: 'They followed me home.' And Jake himself, to me: 'It's like a virus.'

And now I sit.

I'm hungry. But I know the crossroads was a dead end. I close my eyes as they swirl, laughing, about me, for I realize my quarantine is permanent.



http://anthonynorth.com/essays/the-unexplained

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